Reporting: Best Practices 

Conduct a thorough analysis of user scenarios

Emphasize important/interesting information

Ensure that the report is structured for easy reading

Supply easily accessible default reports that address IT administrators' top questions/concerns

Provide powerful functionality in the report setup options

Consider what not to show in the report

Provide some simple ways to analyze data

Provide good navigation in the report

Provide explanations

Use good information-design practices

Ensure that the report is transportable

IT administrators use reports for their own information and to share with others. Following are basic best practices for ensuring that a user can create usable and useful report UI.

Conduct a thorough analysis of user scenarios

A thorough, well-executed user scenario will enable you to create a reporting system that responds to the needs of your user and the systems in question.

To create a solid user scenario, answer the follow questions:

  • Who will be using the report?
    • Business decision maker
    • IT manager (second-level or higher administrator)
    • IT administrator
  • Will users read the report thoroughly, or will they simply scan it?
    • For reports that are scanned, keep them short and focused.
    • For reports that are read thoroughly, enable users to easily display additional rich detail, explanations, and graphics.
    • Allow users to customize what goes in the report.
    • Focus on a good summary and provide highlights throughout the report.
  • How will the report be distributed?
    By e-mail:
    • See the guidelines for making a report transportable.
    • Ensure that the report can be formatted correctly for the user's settings (for example, in plain text or HTML).
    On a Web server:
    • See the guidelines for making a report transportable.
    • Make sure the report is easily downloadable.
    • Provide the proper output formats (for example, HTML or XML).
    • Format the report for easy reading in a browser.
    In print:
    • See the guidelines for making a report transportable.
    • Allow users to annotate the report.
    Through an export feature:
    • Provide the appropriate export formats (e.g., *.xls, *.xml, etc.) for your end-user.
    • Provide easy access to the export feature.

Emphasize important/interesting information

Emphasizing the most important information makes IT administrators more efficient because they do not have to search for the information they need. Emphasizing the information will raise the chances that it will be seen.

  • Emphasize the information that is most relevant to users. (Make sure you address the top questions/concerns.)
  • Display the data that you want to call attention to in a separate location, such as an executive summary or a section summary at the beginning of the report or section.
  • Use inline highlighting, such as by using bold or color. (Note however that bold and color might not work in all languages or for users who are visually impaired.)
  • In large tables, highlight cells that have important information.
  • Put a graphical indicator in the left margin of the page to allow users to scan for important information.
  • Place data that addresses the questions that users ask most at the beginning of the report.
  • Allow users to easily access additional detail directly from the summary information. The more detailed information should be on the same page or a peer page rather than on a page that is “deeper.”

Ensure that the report is structured for easy reading

The report should be structured so that useful information can be read easily at a glance. The report should then also allow users to easily access more detailed information.

  • Provide any executive summaries at the beginning of the report.
  • Ensure that the report is complete so users do not have to go elsewhere to find more information.
  • Keep the report as flat as possible. Do not make users navigate a complex structure to get to data. Summary data can link to more detailed or aggregated information but that information should be on the same page or a peer page rather than on a page that is “deeper.”
  • Ensure that the report allows quick scanning and access to the most important data.
  • Ensure that the report allows roll-up from aggregated data.

Supply easily accessible default reports that address IT administrators’ top questions/concerns

Ensure that the information in the report is targeted toward the correct user scenarios.

  • Identify and prioritize the top questions that the report should answer for a user. This information should be obtained directly from customers.
    A recent survey of Large and Enterprise IT organizations found that the following types of reports are considered the most important:
    • Availability
    • System and network status/health
    • Performance

Other important types of reports are:

  • Understand the role of the user and ensure that the report supplies the relevant information. For example, IT managers are more interested in total uptime. Junior administrators might want information that will help them troubleshoot.
  • Supply the reports that your users request most frequently. Users should be able to adjust the base parameters of these reports.

Provide powerful functionality in the report setup options

Allowing users to tailor the contents of the report means that the report will be more useful and precise for them.

  • Understand the user scenarios, so that the report setup options allow reports to be generated that meet the goals of the user. However, do not provide a report setup that is so sophisticated that users cannot easily plan and set up their core reports. For example, using a SQL builder for report setup may be overly complex.
  • Allow users to configure the variables that go into the reports:
    • Date and time range
    • Data source
    • Exclusion of data
  • Ensure that users can locate the default reports immediately upon opening the reporting UI:
    • Give the default reports prominence in the feature or report menus.
    • Give the default reports prominence on a start page.
  • Use a report setup wizard to prompt users about the report options that are available.

Consider what not to show in the report

Although it is tempting to set up a report that contains every piece of information available, omitting information that is not important to the user allows important information to be accessed more easily.

  • Ensure that the report answers specific questions.
  • Allow IT administrators to exclude information they do not want.
    Before generating the report, allow the user to:
    • Change date/time ranges.
    • Select variables.
    • Select analyses.
    • Select data sources.
    • Select value ranges.
    After generating the report, allow the user to:
    • Filter reports.
    • Use collapsible sections.
    • Ignore sections easily (for example, an index allows the user to find needed items quickly).
  • Though the information contained in the report can be used for troubleshooting, the report itself should only report data and not be a troubleshooter.
  • Consider supplying simple and complex reports that match the amount of data needed and the sophistication of analysis needed to achieve the goals of the different user scenarios.

Provide some simple ways to analyze data

Providing mechanisms in the report that allow users to display only the data they want means the report can be targeted to the needs of each user.

  • Allow users to sort the data. Sorting allows the highest or lowest values to be seen easily. It also allows potential trends in the data to be seen.
  • Provide a base report and allow users to easily adjust the parameters used, so they can generate a report tailored to their concerns.
  • Provide the ability to use views. Views can group data in predetermined meaningful ways.
  • Data is often only meaningful if it is compared with a baseline. Allow users to easily specify a set of data with which current data can be compared.
  • Provide the ability to filter. Filters can include variables, dates, and types of analysis.
  • For more complex data analysis, ensure that your report data is easily exportable to another data analysis program (for example, Microsoft Excel) or exportable to a format compatible with other data analysis programs.

Provide good navigation in the report

When users can move easily around the report, they can easily piece together the story that the information is telling. Clear navigation allows the user to intuitively follow a logical path through the report. To build good navigation:

  • Provide anchors:
    • To navigate from the summary to more detailed information
    • To return to the summary
  • Provide links to:
    • Next and previous pages
    • The report archive
    • References
    • Explanations of the data
    • A glossary of technical terms
    • Raw data that can then be exported (such as .csv and ASCII) for further analysis
  • Avoid links between reports. A good report should be so targeted that users do not need to navigate elsewhere to get a complete picture of the data. Forcing users to navigate between reports can lead to usability problems.

Provide explanations

Showing the context of how and when the report was generated gives the data meaning and validity. For example:

  • Include a header:
    • Display information about how the report is filtered—for example, by date and time.
    • Show the variables that were excluded.
    • State when the report was generated.
    • State when the data in the report was generated.
    • State who generated the report.
  • Reference the data source.
  • Table headings and variable names in column and row headings should be links that pop up explanations of the variables, abbreviations, acronyms, etc.
  • Provide links beside tables that pop up an explanation of the table.

Use good information-design practices

The following basic design principles will make the report easy to read and use.

  • Keep the report short.
  • Make tables scrollable; show a maximum of about 15 items at a time. When the table gets printed, consider showing the top 15 items in the main report (these should be the most important items), and then providing an optional appendix for the full data.
  • Keep online charts concise and easy to read. If users need more details, allow them to click the graphic to open a larger version.
  • Include a report title at the top of the report. This should include:
    • Author
    • Branding
    • Date range of the data
    • Data source
    • Date the report was produced
    • Total number of pages
  • Place the executive summary as the second item in the report; the report title should be first.
  • Include a paging mechanism at the top and bottom of each page.
  • Group chunks of information that relate to each other.
  • Minimize or eliminate horizontal scrolling in your report under standard conditions.
  • Color coding, if necessary, should be supplemented with icons that have ALT text, or text, for the sake of printing and color-blind or visually-impaired users.

Ensure that the report is transportable

IT administrators often share their reports with others. Ensure that the report is formatted correctly for easy distribution through any of the following common channels:

E-mail

  • Ensure that your component allows users to send reports by e-mail.
  • The report should be short enough to be displayed well in an e-mail message.
  • The summary should be at the very beginning, visible without the user having to scroll.
  • The report should have few if any graphics, to keep the message size small. Include banner and branding graphics only if they are really necessary. Keep charts and graphs small.
  • Provide options to generate an HTML or plain text e-mail report. Determine what your user’s e-mail requirements are.
  • Include links to the full report. The e-mail report should just have (1) a summary, (2) user-requested sections, and (3) sections that are highlighted in the summary report.

Web-hosted

  • In a Web-based report, include an option for users to export the report in HTML or another appropriate format.
  • Allow users to export directly to a Web server.
  • Allow users to define a naming algorithm so that a series of reports can be generated.
  • Allow users to access archived reports and to export them as needed.

Print

  • The report should look the same when printed and when viewed online.
  • Format the online version so that it can be printed without the need to reformat.
  • Break the online report into pages that fit on an 8.5-by-11-inch piece of paper.
  • Ask yourself “Would this work on paper?” Try printing a long report to see if it fails any expectations.
  • Colors alone should not contain any information. Reports are printed in black ink, so any color code should be captured in tonal variations.
  • Allow users to export to .csv and tab-delimited formats, etc.
  • Allow users access to the raw data.
  • Ensure that the same information is included in all formats. Don’t include information in one format and not the other.
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